A "soft open," in restaurant parlance, is a kind of dress-rehearsal period, wherein the establishment throws open its doors and hopes for a manageable trickle of customers to walk in, allowing the kitchen and waitstaff to work out kinks in the menu and service.
In the Twitter age, however, a soft open is wishful thinking: A single well-connected foodie can alert hundreds if not thousands of fellow zealots in an instant, and within hours your manageable trickle is a torrent. All of which is to say that Umamicatessen's soft open in the Orpheum Theatre building on Broadway downtown has been anything but soft. From the moment the first stove was lit, the first patty hit the grill, the first paper-thin sheet of ham curled off the slicer's blade, the place has been more or less mobbed.
Umamicatessen represents an opportunity for Umami Burger founder Adam Fleischman to delve deeper than ever into the mysteries of the fifth taste. Here he has assembled six semidetached restaurant entities, three kitchens, three counter stations and a bar, all set in a single, rough-hewn food court, a cavernous loftlike hall of oxidized metal and reclaimed timber, lit by repurposed Klieg lights and milk bottle light fixtures. Corrugated metal baffles hang from the ceiling in a vain attempt to absorb the din below, but the sound of the place is one of its central features: It hums, and it doesn't care who's listening.
The comfort-food menu feels a bit like a carnivore's fever dream, where umami accents inhabit every plate, bowl and parchment swatch, where even the cocktails might contain a pig's tail.
Anchoring the concept is a branch of Umami Burger itself, with a menu virtually indistinguishable from its counterparts in mid-Wilshire, Hollywood, Los Feliz and elsewhere. There is also the Cure, Fleischman's homage to the kosher deli in miniature, which includes weighty knishes; smooth liva with toast and jelly; a rich, velvety matzo ball soup; and pastrami sandwiches where the meat is served not in dainty slices but in thick, chewy chunks.
Fleischman has brought in Spring for Coffee for well-pulled espressos and mugs of Stumptown drip, and hired Adrian Bigg to curate the Back Bar, which carries a full retinue of draft beers, a wine list where all but a few of the bottles come in at exactly $28, and a work-in-progress cocktail selection whose signature drink, the Micha-mami, is a beery Bloody Mary rimmed with a yeasty concoction that may as well be called umamessence, which soon will be sold by the jar.
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SHOW ME HOW
But what puts Umamicatessen over the top is Pigg (or rather P!GG, as it's exclaimed on the menu), the contribution of San Francisco chef Chris Cosentino, who brings with him an esteem for the hog that, even by L.A. standards, is notable for the depth of its commitment. Cosentino's menu includes four musky pâté selections, cans of creamy pork rillette and whipped lardo, pig's ear salads and fries topped with "brainaise," a gray-matter aioli that's unlikely to make you smarter. But his pièce de résistance is a global ham selection that instantly vaults Umamicatessen to the front of the pork pack.
I urge you to go Around the World in 8 Hams. How can you resist? Two lengths of butcher paper are placed before you, upon which lie discreet piles of rosy, striated sheets of pork, some a lush, opaque pink, some dark and translucent, shiny as taffeta and streaked with fat. Beneath each pile the butcher has written its name with a Sharpie, as if they are specimens on display in a meat museum.
It is a marvelous thing to taste them side by side, to inhale the smoke of the Surryano ham from Virginia, and compare it with the meaty thrust of the Broadbent, from Kentucky; to contrast the dried mango sweetness of Prosciutto di San Danielle with the nutty sweetness of the Jamon Iberico de Bellota, from the haunch of a pig raised wholly on acorns, with a texture so meltingly tender you'll almost forget to chew.
As he crashes the burgeoning downtown dining scene, Fleischman has chosen his playmates well.